CHAMPAIGN — It takes a special — some might say crazy — person to run a marathon, or really any distance farther than what it takes to navigate from the couch to the refrigerator and back.
Seriously, who in their right mind would voluntarily train for months and push their bodies to the limit in an effort to run upward of 26.2 miles? Crazy, I mean, special folks.
All kidding aside, I have nothing but admiration for the thousands who tested themselves and conquered the races held in town this weekend. It’s an accomplishment and something to be proud of for years on end.
The most I’ve ever run at one time in my life was 3.5 miles, and that’s because playing time on the baseball field was at stake. To me, there’s just nothing fun about running for the heck of it.
Let’s get off that, this isn’t about that.
You know who’s just as crazy, I’m sorry, special, as runners? The folks who line the streets during these mega races to cheer them on. What’s so exciting about watching a bunch of strangers labor through such a grueling experience?
Many are there in support of friends and family members running the various races. Others flock to the route just because the runners pass their houses or simply to support the event.
At the corner of Hessel and State, Aaron Mercer and three buddies set up a table with some chairs in their front yard, continuously clapped and shouted words of encouragement — “You’re almost there! Keep pushing!” — as runners competing in the 10K scooted by.
“It’s an event; it’s fun to be outside,” Mercer said. “It’s nice that we live right here, but we’d probably be out on the route somewhere if it didn’t come by here. I went out on Green Street last year to watch and cheer for some of the runners.”
Mercer and his crew left a red cooler filled with bottles of cold water on the street for the runners to enjoy if they pleased.
For themselves, a tub filled with ice-cold Busch Lights satisfied their thirst. Enjoying a beer while the runners suffered through the final mile of their race seems as cruel as running out and tripping someone during the home stretch.
“Hey, we’ve offered some, but no one has taken any yet,” Mercer said.
Other spectators, like UI student Josh Dub, set up lawn chairs along the route to offer a brief word of encouragement for a loved one.
Dub kicked back in a red lawn chair on Stadium Drive, near First Street, to see his fiancee, Christine Lefever of Normal, make her final push in the 10K.
“The ambition and the hard work is something to admire, and it’s nice to come out here and acknowledge these people for their hard work,” Dub said.
If you thought the bombings near the finish line at the Boston Marathon on April 15 that left three spectators dead and dozens others seriously injured would deter folks from coming out to the Illinois Marathon, think again.
Behind the barricades at the runners’ entrance to Memorial Stadium, spectators lined up two, sometimes three deep to get one last chance to yell toward the runners as they approached the finish at the 50-yard line.
David Van Vooren of Downers Grove stood leaning against one of the barricades waiting to get a glimpse of his son, Drew, who was finishing the half-marathon. Fully aware that the Boston attacks took place in a location similar to where he and hundreds of others were gathered Saturday, Van Vooren didn’t think twice about planting himself there.
“Incidents like that happen because individuals want to take advantage of us or force us to change,” Van Vooren said. “I came out to support my son today, and nothing else really mattered. It was just a function to support him. I didn’t change anything today.”
But does all that yelling and clapping really get through to the runners, many of whom are listening to music from their iPods through headphones?
Camille Herron, who won the women’s marathon Saturday, said it makes a difference.
Herron has run in 21 marathons and said the support of the folks in Champaign-Urbana was up there with the best she’s experienced.
“There’s so much crowd support,” Herron said. “If you see someone you know, that really helps, but seeing anyone out there cheering for you gives you a little bit of a boost. The support is so great; everyone just wants to be a part of it.”
The folks who come out to support marathon runners are aware of the sacrifices and the hours these special folks have put forth in the months leading up to the event.
Saturday, a young adult male had just reached the 26-mile marker, so close to the finish line when he started walking. A female spectator, a complete stranger, wasn’t having any of that.
“Don’t you give up now; this is what you trained for! You’re almost there,” she yelled.
The guy was likely thinking, “You have no idea how I’m feeling right now, lady.” But he heard her. He lifted his head and returned to his trot and covered those last two-tenths of a mile running.
There’s a unique dynamic between runners and the folks who cheer them on, one that can’t really be explained.
It’s crazy. No, it’s special.
Marcus Jackson is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5604 or at email@example.com.